The third general election and fourth presidential election since Kenya passed a new constitution occurred on August 9. The results are yet to be determined, and if past elections are any guide, there could be serious political and civil turmoil.
Though four candidates are officially running, only two have a legitimate chance at becoming Kenya’s head of state and government: Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement and former opposition leader, and William Ruto, current Deputy President under President Uhuru Kenyatta.
Kenyan elections have been fraught with controversy and violence, ranging from corruption allegations to alleged crimes against humanity. Attempted coups brought torture and detention without trial for accused perpetrators, including Mr. Odinga, unrest following the 2007 election killed or displaced thousands (and resulted in the charges that were later dropped against Mr. Kenyatta and Dr. Ruto), and Mr. Kenyatta’s 2017 electoral victory was annulled by the Kenyan Supreme Court and the election was rerun, which he won following the boycott of Mr. Odinga.
The dominant candidates of this election are well-known, but a potentially violent response to one of their victories is a dangerous possibility.
Mr. Odinga is running for the fifth time, and instead of running against Mr. Kenyatta, he has secured his endorsement. Dr. Ruto is running for president for the first time, though without the backing of the president under whom he served. He has been in the political sphere for decades, serving in various ministerial positions.
The 2022 elections have been classified as a fight of “hustlers vs. dynasties,” a myth perpetuated by Dr. Ruto as he attempts to appeal to ordinary Kenyans by portraying himself as a man of the people, in touch with their struggles.
Whoever wins this election will be faced with a coalescence of domestic, regional, and international problems, which must be confronted with a combination of existing and new infrastructures with no guarantees of success.
The political battle between Mr. Odinga and Dr. Ruto is new, but over half a century of history has brought Kenya to an inflection point. Its fledgling democracy has the opportunity to grow, but only if its institutions earn the trust of the Kenyan people.
Independence and single-party rule
Kenya was a British colony until December 12, 1963, when it became the Dominion of Kenya. Exactly one year later, Kenya removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and became the Republic of Kenya with the president as both head of state and government.
Prior to its independence, Kenya fought against British control in the Mau Mau uprising, and though this did not grant full autonomy, the United Kingdom was forced to concede some liberties to the Kenyan people.
Eventually, Kenya sought complete sovereignty, with Jomo Kenyatta (father of current President Uhuru Kenyatta) being elected unopposed during Kenya’s first elections in 1963. Mr. Kenyatta is still considered mzee, or the Father of the Nation. The first Vice President, who served under Jomo Kenyatta, was Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the father of Raila Odinga.
The elder Mr. Kenyatta’s tenure was mired in corruption, ranging from back-alley economic dealings to Mr. Kenyatta’s potential role in various murders.
Daniel arap Moi succeeded Mr. Kenyatta in 1978 after serving as Mr. Kenyatta’s third vice president in an attempt to win over Mr. Moi’s Kalenjin tribe of the Rift Valley. Mr. Kenyatta’s death prompted a special election to be held, but because no one came out to run in opposition of Mr. Moi, the electoral process was circumvented.
Mr. Moi overcame an attempted coup that sought to overthrow his repressive regime in 1982, with both Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and Raila Odinga being implicated. The younger Odinga was subsequently detained and tortured by Mr. Moi’s regime.
Like his predecessor, Mr. Moi’s time as president was shadowed by corruption, largely surrounding shadowy economic dealings. Mr. Moi’s corruption did not preclude him from staying in power: By exploiting ethnic divisions and repealing the section of Kenya’s constitution prohibiting the existence of opposition parties, he was elected twice more in 1992 and 1997.
Kenya’s first two presidents either mentored the current candidates, or are directly related to them. They played an outsized role in Kenyan politics following Kenya’s independence, and their legacies, including their roles in capitalizing on ethnic divisions, live on.
The Kenyattas are Kikuyu, the largest ethnic group in Kenya. There have only been two ethnic groups represented in the presidency: Kikuyu and Kalenjin. Of Kenya’s four presidents since independence, three have been Kikuyu (Jomo Kenyatta, Mwai Kibaki, and Uhuru Kenyatta) and one has been Kalenjin (Daniel arap Moi). A Luo candidate has entered and lost every presidential election.
Dr. Ruto is of the Kalenjin ethnic group, while Mr. Odinga is ethnically Luo, the fourth-largest ethnic group in Kenya. Outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta has advocated for the next president to be “neither Kikuyu nor Kalenjin,” a shift in the ethnically-focused political paradigm that has dominated Kenyan politics up until this point.
Instead of playing to ethnic divisions, this election’s candidates, particularly William Ruto, have shifted the political conversation to class differences.
Dr. Ruto created the “hustlers vs. dynasties” dynamic in an effort to paint Mr. Odinga as a privileged man out of touch with the lives of everyday Kenyans. This is a specious characterization, as although it is true that Mr. Odinga benefited from his father’s political standing, he was an active force in Kenya’s fight for democracy.
Dr. Ruto’s pugnacious speeches about class has drawn the scrutiny of National Cohesion and Integration Committee (NCIC) Chairman Samuel Kobia, he has gone as far as to say that this language could be classified as hate speech.
Kenya’s political dialogue has somewhat shifted away from traditional ethnic discussions and toward class discussions, a new complexity with which Kenyan voters must contend.
Kenyans passed a new constitution, replacing the one that had guided the country since its 1963 independence, just five years after a similar effort failed.
The new constitution brought back the bicameral Legislative branch — a 67-member Senate and 337-member National Assembly — after a shift following independence from a bicameral to a unicameral system. It sought to check the powers of the president in an effort to reign in the corruption that has plagued Kenyan politics, and set up a system for the appointments of the federal Judiciary. This constitution was a step forward in revamping Kenya’s political infrastructure and was supposed to prevent further electoral strife.
The 2017 election proved that even if this new constitution should have worked in theory, reality continued the divisiveness of Kenyan politics.
Kenya’s first two presidencies were overshadowed by conflict and corruption, and its subsequent two presidencies have continued that trend.
After Daniel arap Moi, his former vice president and minister Mwai Kibaki won the 2002 election, overcoming Mr. Moi’s Kenya African National Union (KANU) backing of opponent Uhuru Kenyatta.
Mr. Kibaki was able to wrest control of government from the party that had governed Kenya since its independence with his National Rainbow Coalition (NARC). This success was overshadowed, however, by his controversial reelection victory in 2007, which resulted in a monthslong period of violence that killed scores of Kenyans.
Post-2007 election conflict
The 2007 election saw incumbent Mwai Kibaki of NARC run against Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM). While Mr. Odinga was expected to defeat Mr. Kibaki, Mr. Kibaki ended up defeating Mr. Odinga by 2.35 percent of the vote. An already ethnically-charged election created the conditions that led to the ensuing crisis.
After the election, both Mr. Kibaki and his supporters and Mr. Odinga and his supporters brought allegations of election fraud. Even the poll chief was unsure of who officially won the election despite declaring Mr. Kibaki the victor. International observers would later agree that the vote count was flawed, but this did not quell the tensions that were beginning to boil over.
Over the next year, over 1,000 people were killed and approximately 350,000 people were displaced, according to an International Criminal Court (ICC) report. The ICC charged Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, among others, with various crimes against humanity, which were later dropped in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Tensions eased after Mr. Odinga agreed to become prime minister — only the second to hold the position in Kenya — with Mr. Kibaki as president.
2017 election rerun
Two elections after the 2007-2008 conflict, electoral malpractice was again alleged during the 2017 contest between Uhuru Kenyatta (who was running for reelection) and Raila Odinga.
This time, the Kenyan Supreme Court agreed, saying that the election “was not conducted within the dictates of the constitution.” It ordered that the election be rerun, the first time an election had to be repeated in Kenyan history.
However, Mr. Odinga boycotted the rerun, arguing that the new election “will be worse than the previous one.” This allowed Mr. Kenyatta to run unopposed, securing him his reelection with almost 7.5 million votes.
After Mr. Kenyatta respected the two-term limit on occupying the presidency, two people emerged as the clear choices to become the fifth president of Kenya: Raila Odinga, who is running for the fifth time, and William Ruto, who is running for the first time.
Name-calling and political shakeups, most notably the decision by Mr. Kenyatta to endorse Mr. Odinga rather than his Deputy President Dr. Ruto, have already made this election another contentious one. The fact that the result is still unknown magnifies the risk for post-election conflict, or the possibility of a run-off, a first in Kenyan history.
Unless one candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote overall and at least 25 percent of the vote in 24 counties, the two highest placing candidates will run again. (As previously mentioned, two other candidates besides Mr. Odinga and Dr. Ruto are running, but they will not win the votes necessary to supersede either of the two frontrunners.)
Mr. Odinga is a veteran of Kenyan politics, and though he has been the presumed opposition leader for decades, he has been unable to win the highest office.
Despite feuding with outgoing President Kenyatta, he has been able to make amends, boosting Mr. Odinga’s chances of winning this election.
Should he win, Mr. Odinga would be the first president not of the Kikuyu or Kalenjin ethnic groups; he is Luo. His election would also make his running mate, Martha Karua, the first female vice president of Kenya.
Dr. Ruto entered politics in 1992 having been mentored by former President Daniel arap Moi. He ran with Mr. Kenyatta and defeated Mr. Odinga during the 2017 election.
He has branded himself as the face of Kenya’s “hustler nation,” able to empathize with ordinary Kenyans’ struggles. However, it is the souring of his relationship with Mr. Kenyatta that has led him to make the decisions he has made on the campaign trail.
Dr. Ruto has demonized both Mr. Odinga and Mr. Kenyatta, but in order to overcome the high levels of voter distrust of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), he needs to mobilize the “hustlers” to get out to the polls and vote.
Kenya is a significant player in East Africa and on the continent at large. With its new constitution, Kenya has been able to improve its democracy at a time when other democracies are backsliding.
East Africa requires stability, and if this election damages Kenya’s domestic security, it could spell tremendous danger for the rest of the region.
The 2012 Kenya National Dialogue and Reconciliation (KNDR) Monitoring Project set out four agenda items for Kenya to tackle: post-election violence, humanitarian crises, general political instability, and long-term domestic issues. These ambiguous goals are not enough to overcome the challenges that Kenya faces, thus the new president will have to devise a new strategy to achieve this.
Uhuru Kenyatta attempted to address these issues with the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI); Mr. Kenyatta claimed that this constitutional referendum would defuse ethnic tensions and unify Kenyan politics, but his Deputy President William Ruto said this was a blatant attempt to create an omnipotent presidency.
The Supreme Court agreed with Dr. Ruto, declaring that BBI was unconstitutional. Kenya’s political system must continue to adapt with the times, and there has not been a clear plan set forward by either Dr. Ruto or Mr. Odinga to resolve this.
One piece of the solution to Kenya’s troubles is Kenya Vision 2030, launched by former President Mwai Kibaki in 2008. It lays out three pillars — economic, social, and political — that must be strengthened by 2030 “to create ‘a globally competitive and prosperous country with a high quality of life.’ “
Kenya has multinational questions to answer, as well. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is in a standoff with Rwanda and Uganda over the M23 rebel militant group; the DRC accuses Rwanda in particular of offering protection to the rebel group. Kenya’s relationship with Uganda encourages it to find a way to diffuse the situation; otherwise, it risks escalation mirroring the Second Congo War.
The next president must also confront a growing food crisis, driven in large part by drought and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Coupled with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the incoming president must be prepared to rehabilitate an economy at risk of collapse.
The outcome of Kenya’s election greatly affects domestic and transnational concerns, and Kenya’s post-election history of violence and confusion poses an immense risk to the security both inside and outside Kenya’s borders. Unless the winner can swiftly garner multiethnic support for his agenda, Kenya will repeat the political mistakes of its past, failing to meet the moment when it has the chance to lead.